All Posts (10)

Developments in Europe

Fall of the Berlin Wall

Minority governments in the United Kingdom and Spain went to the polls seeking mandates even as European commentators marked the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many contrasted the heady expectations that had followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, reunification of Germany and spread of democracy to central Europe with the economic and political gloom the continent is experiencing today.

Immediately following the Berlin Wall’s collapse, the European Union nearly doubled in size and US President George H. W. Bush’s vision of a Europe, “whole and free,” seemed possible. Democracy and economic reforms were introduced in a post-Soviet Russia. Francis Fukuyama could argue liberal democracy had no visible ideological challenger and thus, in a Hegelian sense, the “end of history” had arrived.

In subsequent years much of this went awry. Yugoslavia collapsed into the first major international conflict on European soil since World War II. Russia fell into economic chaos, leading to the rise of Vladimir Putin and the restoration of authoritarian rule.

Most striking has been the fate of the EU which has mired in a series of endless crises over the past two decades. The global financial crisis and the subsequent eurozone problem went on for several years. The organisation’s expansion ran aground in the Balkans and Turkey. The latter has given up European integration and gone down a more illiberal and Islamicist path. The European heartland has not been spared. The nativist working-class revolts against the ruling establishment led to the UK voting to leave the EU, the traditional parties of France and Italy being replaced, and anti-immigrant movements gaining ground in Germany and coming to power in central Europe. Talk of democracy in crisis, both economic and political liberalism being out of date, are now endemic.

The outgoing head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, credited with forestalling the last eurozone crisis, warned that the European economy was heading for a recession going by present trends.

A historian speculates about a world in which the Berlin Wall did not fall. Clue: think Korean peninsula.

The transatlantic alliance’s peak was embodied in the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, the alliance is today looking frayed. The scepticism about the alliance under Barack Obama has transmuted to open hostility under Trump. The US president is notable for being opposed to both the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, though his reasons partly reflect his personal eccentricities. Europeans question whether their continent’s security and stability are a US priority any longer. The US, both on the left and right, ask if it is time to force the Europeans to defend themselves and focus instead on the Indo-Pacific. French President Emmanuel Macron was fiercely criticized by Germany for recently declaring NATO “brain dead” and resurrecting Gaullist visions of a European security architecture sans the US. However, Germans continue to fail to recognise that their own distorting economic policies and refusal to spend on defence are among the most important reasons for the sorry state of the Western alliance and European unity.

November 15, 2019

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Developments in North America

Bloomberg May Join US Elections

Billionaire and former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has begun signalling he may enter the Democratic presidential race.  A former moderate Republican and worth an estimated $ 52 billion, he had made noises earlier about a presidential run. After former vice-president Joe Biden entered the fray, Bloomberg indicated in March he no longer felt he needed to run. Biden’s struggle to impose himself on the Democratic race may have rekindled Bloomberg’s interest. It also reflects alarm among liberal establishment figures that the Democrats are moving too far left and giving President Donald Trump a chance at re-election. If he joins, Bloomberg will have a lot of work ahead of him. An early November Fox News polls said only six per cent of likely Democratic primary voters would cast a ballot for the billionaire. Some analysts say Bloomberg’s actual numbers are less than two per cent. If Biden stumbles, a centrist slot could open up, though Peter Butigieg of Indiana, the only gay candidate, seems to be drifting into that space.

Warren Bets on Healthcare

Elizabeth Warren, the number two Democratic candidate, saw her numbers drop after announcing plans for a universal healthcare programme, Medicare for All. She was evasive on how this could done without raising middle-class taxes. Media commentary of her health plan was 70 per cent negative. Warren has made healthcare one of the pillars of her campaign along with higher taxes on the wealthy and the breakup of Silicon Valley big tech and Wall Street’s big finance.

The data shows Warren is the favourite number two candidate for the supporters of all the other major candidates. As the race tightens, Warren is best positioned to pick up supporters from other rivals. She also leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that will kick off the primaries next year. She averaged 21.5 per cent in national polling on November 6, but is seven points off her peak in October and trailing Biden by the same margin.

Bernie Sanders, who remains a close number three, did well during the November television debates and allayed fears voters would drop him following a heart attack.

Blue Wave in US Local Polls

If local elections are a harbinger of next year’s national elections, the Democrats are on a strong wicket. Since Trump has come to power the Democrats have unseated nine Republican governors compared to zero by the other party. These included states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Kentucky that voted for Trump. Blue candidates also won two senatorial seats in core Republican states in the US South. This month saw Democrats take both houses of the state assembly in Virginia, another conservative state.

Election analysts like Nate Silver say these local victories show that the Republican-leaning suburban voter is in play. Urban seats trend heavily Democrat and rural ones Republican. Their strength in the suburbs has guaranteed the present Republican dominance of US politics. Demographic change, rising education and ethnic shifts have been changing the suburbs, but a dislike for Trump may be accelerating the process.

A study by political scientists Ruy Texeira and John Halpin has shown the US electorate next year will be 29 per cent non-white, 30 per cent college-educated whites and 42 per cent poorly-educated whites. The first two groups lean Democrat, the last Republican. Trump sealed his victory by winning a third of the non-white vote, 40 per cent of educated whites as well two-thirds of non-educated whites. In some midwestern states the uneducated white population is unusually large, like Michigan and Wisconsin, and swung to Trump.

The trends in US local elections indicate this coalition may be harder to maintain with non-whites and educated whites backing Democrats more strongly. Analysts point to civic and congressional elections in places like Hamilton Country in Indiana and southwest St Louis in Missouri, Republican suburban strongholds which experienced unusually strong pro-Democrat swings. With leftist Democratic candidates wooing the white working class with welfare schemes, Texeira and Halpin believe it could possible for a Democratic candidate to take back “Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and carry the Electoral College by 279 votes to 259 votes.”

Trump Mildly Embattled

Trump continues to battle an impeachment process launched by the Democratic-controlled lower house of Congress. The accusation is that Trump asked the Ukrainian government to provide information he could use against Joe Biden and this is an impeachable offence. With the Senate firmly in the Republican fold and few Republicans willing to take on their president, the impeachment is unlikely to do much other than chip away at the president’s approval rating. So far, Trump’s ratings have held steady in the 42-44 per cent band. The Democrats continue to hope investigations will throw up something even more damaging.

Figures show that the Trump administration has lost 41 per cent of its cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries and undersecretaries over the past four years.  This is an unusually high turnover, much greater than previous presidencies.

Though irrelevant to elections, new studies are saying the record low unemployment levels may be a long-term negative for the US economy. Much of the hiring is being done at the expense of capital investment because firms are concerned at the uncertainty caused by the US-China trade war, the US elections and other events. Instead they are hiring workers because they can be easily dismissed later on. Economist are pointing to the slowing productivity figures as the flashing red light. The US’s productivity increases have been “the secret sauce” of the economy’s past success.

November 15, 2019 

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The US formally withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on August 2nd when Russia declined to scrap a new cruise missile which Washington claimed violated the treaty. The INF treaty, negotiated near the end of the Cold War, banned nuclear weapons between the ranges of 500-5,500 kms. 

Critics in the US had also attacked the treaty was that, though it constrained US and Russian forces worldwide, it did not apply to China which had begun deploying ever larger numbers of missiles in the Western Pacific. Over 90 per cent of China’s ballistic and cruise missiles are in the intermediate range. President Donald Trump said he had proposed to China that it be part of a new, trilateral INF Treaty negotiations. Beijing has not shown any interest in the offer. The Pentagon chief announced the US would be deploying intermediate range missiles in Asia “sooner than later”. 

Technologically, the development and widespread use of long-range conventional cruise missiles across the world, like the Tomahawk and the Brahmos, has made intermediate range nuclear missiles increasingly irrelevant in the view of many experts. Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, among the INF Treaty’s strongest critics, argued it was a “bilateral treaty in a multipolar ballistic missile world”. 

Two recent developments showcased further shifts in missile deployment. One, a nuclear explosion in Russia that killed five scientists seems to be linked to Moscow’s attempts to design a nuclear-powered missile, a propulsion system that would give a missile an extraordinary long-range. Two, the most recent missiles tested by North Korea and fired above Japan seemed to have irregular trajectories making them largely impervious to conventional missile defences.

August 30, 2019

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US Elections: Trump May Be Vulnerable

President Trump has announced he will stick with Vice-President Mike Pence as his running mate in the 2020 elections, quelling rumours he was considering Indian-American Nikki Haley for the position. Another Republican, ex-governor Joe Walsh, has announced he will contest the nomination against Trump but his bid, as he himself admits, is largely symbolic. 

There is small, but mounting, evidence Trump’s re-election bid may be more vulnerable than was expected. A Quinnipiac University poll showed that five of the Democratic candidates would defeat Trump in terms of popular vote. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders would do so by large margins, 16 and 14 percentage points. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris would do so by eight points and even Pete Buttigieg, who is faring poorly in the Democratic race, would do so by nine points. The university’s polling analyst, Mary Snow, said Trump was facing a “ceiling of support” of 40 percentage points “no matter the candidate.” A slew of local polls show the US president struggling in many of the swing states that proved decisive in his victory over Clinton including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Iowa. Even some traditional Republican states like North Carolina and Georgia are being seen as susceptible to a moderate Democrat. 

Others polls show the white working class that propelled him to victory are less concerned about racial grievances than before. Paula Ioanide, a professor of race relations at Ithaca College, says the belief white identity was under attack peaked in 2016 and is now receding. White liberals, concerned at racial polarisation, are also showing greater signs of mobilisation than their opposite numbers. 

Some polls show Trump’s disapproval ratings for domestic issues, foreign policy and, most importantly, the economy have all passed 60 per cent and even among those who give him a thumbs up on the economy are increasingly inclined to vote for a Democrat. A particularly damaging poll result in a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showed 62 per cent of white women, a group who divided their vote between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, say they will now vote for a Democrat. 

The US presidential election campaign saw the race among the Democrat candidates tightening. Joe Biden, the most mainstream candidate, continues to hold the lead said most polls. His strengths:  most Democratic supporters believe he is the most likely candidate to defeat President Donald Trump. He also remains the most popular candidate among black voters and uneducated whites. Elizabeth Warren has seen her support grow steadily and she is now the number two or three choice in most polls. She also has the lowest disapproval ratings indicated that when other candidates drop out, their supporters are more likely to flock to her banner. Her weakness: her core support is overwhelmingly white. Bernie Sanders continues to hold on to his numbers but shows no signs of widening his base. Kamala Harris, who rose briefly after a successful debate performance, has sunk back to single digits and is trailing Warren even in her home state of California. A key electoral group which remains uncertain who to support are Hispanics. However, as pollsters note, only 12 per cent of Democrats say they have firmly decided on a candidate.

August 30, 2019

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Greenland: Not for Sale

Perhaps unknowingly echoing an offer by Harry Truman in 1946, President Donald Trump surprised everyone by proposing the US buy the island state of Greenland. Denmark rejected the offer, leading Trump to cancel a state visit to the country. It is now known that the US president has long mused privately about the idea of buying the island. 

Trump’s offer did renew interest in Greenland’s massive rare earth holdings – a staggering 40 million tonnes out of a global total of about 160 million tonnes. Denmark has already issued a dozen mining permits as the Greenland ice cap melts because of climate change. It also underlined the growing geopolitical competition over the Arctic since China declared itself a “near Arctic” nation and Russia placed a flag on underwater Arctic ridges that are outside of its exclusive economic zone. 

Trump did not make a direct offer to the 58,000 residents of Greenland which is an autonomous region under Denmark. Truman offered Denmark $ 100 million for the island.

August 30, 2019

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The new British prime minister, Boris Johnson, prorogued the UK Parliament for an unusual five weeks in the runup to the October 31st deadline for Britain to leave the European Union. Johnson seems to want to avoid a cross-party parliamentary vote to extend the deadline, reduce the scope for public debate on the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, as well as shore up his negotiating hand with the EU. 

Johnson and the EU are engaged in a high-stakes game of chicken over Brexit. Johnson has demanded the EU renegotiate the Brexit deal it worked out with his predecessor. His primary demand: the EU must drop the backstop with Ireland, a position that Brussels has refused. The British leader has taken the hard line that he is prepared to accept a no-deal Brexit when the October 31st deadline for withdrawal comes. Johnson’s team seemingly believes the EU’s fears of major economic disruption if a no-deal Brexit takes place will force them to come to the table. So far, neither side has shown any inclination to blink. 

Without the backstop, the boundary between Ireland and Northern Ireland would become a hard border. Brussels believes this could reignite sectarian violence in Ireland and is equally determined not to give up on the backstop. 

Another option would be for both sides to extend the October deadline by renegotiating Article 50 which governs Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Johnson is opposed to the idea, one reason he has closed the parliament for so long. 

Johnson is trapped, as were his predecessors, by the mood of his own party which remains hostage to Brexit supporters who want to stick to the October 31st deadline, whatever the consequences. Polls show the Conservative Party polling 12 points ahead of Labour thanks in part to Johnson’s hard line, but also Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s unwillingness to consider a second Brexit referendum.

A leaked report indicates the British government is preparing for the possibility of a no deal Brexit and the possibility this would result in widespread economic disruption and social unrest, including shortages of fuel, medicine and food. The possibility of martial law is among the options being contemplated.–-they-are-prepared-play-hardball  

August 30, 2019


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Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the guest leaders invited to the Group of Seven summit in mid-August in Biarritz, France. The leaders of India, Australia, Chile and Spain were asked to join by French President Emmanuel Macron along with a number of African countries. After two disastrous summits in Italy and Canada, France sought to revive the G-7’s image as a multilateral body capable of addressing major global problems. The problem in the past summits was US President Donald Trump’s opposition to free trade and climate change, support for Brexit and Russia, and general disdain for the G-7’s core belief in liberal democratic values. 

Macron was able to mitigate Trump’s behaviour by replacing the joint communique with a simple one-page declaration. He pulled off a minor coup by having the Iranian foreign minister drop-by, getting Trump to consider loosening sanctions against Iran and meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Iranian Foreign Minister S Javid made a surprise stopover which unnerved Israel. Though the US leader and he did not meet, Trump raised no objections to his presence.
However, the US president acted per his own playbook by pushing hard for Russia’s re-entry, boycotting meetings on the Amazon rainforest and climate change, and urging British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to leave the European Union as quickly as possible. 

Most importantly for the world economy was zero evidence the US was letting up on its trade war with China or pulling back from its brewing trade conflict with the EU. Trump, however, did announce a preliminary free trade agreement with Japan before the summit, this could assuage US farmers hurt by the loss of the Chinese market. 

Macron announced the G-7 would provide $ 20 million to fight fires in the Amazon, an offer rejected by an irate Brazil. However, there is evidence Modi is upping India’s game when it comes to multilateral moves on the environment. Modi attended the G-7 sessions on climate, oceans and biodiversity and at the G-7 continued to promote his idea of a disaster-resilient infrastructure coalition to add to the earlier International Solar Alliance. France is co-founder of the latter. 

Modi can be pleased that Trump publicly declared Kashmir to be a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, walking away from his earlier offers to mediate. The next G-7 summit will be in the US. Trump offered to hold the summit at one of his own resorts in Florida, leading to reminders the resort once had a bedbug infestation.

August 30, 2019


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Digest of Major World News

Hong Kong. Authorities in Hong Kong carried out the first arrests following weeks of protests in the island-state against a law that would allow for the extradition of residents to mainland China. The protests at their peak had nearly two million people out on the streets and led the Hong Kong Legislative Council to suspend the new law. In early July, however, a fringe group of protestors vandalized the council building and led to the arrests of nearly a dozen people. Beijing is expected to continue to curb Hong Kong’s civil liberties, but perhaps in a more subtle manner. The demonstrators developed a number of techniques, such as avoiding digital payments and using burner phones, to avoid the surveillance systems of the police. 

G-20 Summit. This year’s G-20 summit was held in Osaka, Japan, from June 28-29. The summit was notable for producing little substantial about how to handle a slowing global economy or tackling climate change, largely because of US resistance to language on trade and carbon. Most international attention was on the meeting between US President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The two agreed to put a hold on their bilateral trade war and Trump even announced US companies would be allowed to sell 5G components to embattled Chinese telecom manufacturer Huawei. However, the latter concession was refuted by the US administration. The summit represented the first interaction with Western leaders by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after his re-election and he held a number of bilaterals, including with Trump. The media focussed on the presence of Ivanka Trump, the US president’s daughter, among the G-20 leaders. 

Seaweed. The world’s largest recorded seaweed bloom was found stretching from the Caribbean to the coast of West Africa. The bloom was 8800 kilometre long seaweed bloom that weighed 20 million tonnes. The unusual formation was ascribed to increased pollution in the world’s oceans and, possibly, the changing global climate. Scientists said such strange developments would become increasingly normal because of man-made changes to the natural ecosystem.

July 15, 2019

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China, itself under layers of United States tariffs and sanctions, is quietly defying US strictures against buying oil from Iran. The Trump administration, recognizing it has already reduced its leverage with China, was weighing imposing more tariffs as punishment or pre-emptively granting Beijing a waiver from sanctions and focusing on limiting Iran’s export volumes. If the US goes down the second path it would constitute a major step down by the US and open the door for other countries, including India, to ask for similar waivers. 

Kpler, a firm that tracks oil tankers, reported Iran delivered its second oil consignment to China in late June. Iran managed to transfer 545,000 barrels of crude to different oil tankers each day last month. While this was just over half of what it used to export, it still constituted a major breach of the US sanctions. A smaller amount, about 34,000 barrels, is presently on its way to Turkey, another regime with a domestic interest in defying the US. "The rest of the Iranian oil loaded on tankers last month is either pinned down in the Iranian territorial waters or in Fujairah port, United Arab Emirates, in the Persian Gulf," Kpler said. Iran has developed an array of techniques, including turning off its ships’ GPS systems, to find means around the sanctions. 

The US-Iran confrontation is headed for an impasse. Iran announced in early July it had begun enriching uranium to above the limits set by the Iran-US nuclear deal though well below weapons-grade levels. The US issued sanctions against senior Iranian leaders but avoided doing so against the Iranian foreign minister as that would scuttle any chance of negotiations. Europe tried to offer enticements to keep Iran within the terms of the nuclear deal, setting up a special financial entity to allow European companies to continue to do business with Tehran. But the Iranian foreign minister called the efforts insufficient, especially since the entity would still not allow Iran to continue to export oil. Later, Iran shot down a US drone that it claimed had trespassed into its airspace. Washington claimed the drone was in international airspace. Trump reportedly personally called off a retaliatory strike at the last minute. 

The crisis is having minimal impact on global oil prices thanks to record US shale production and market expectations of weak global demand. The G-20 summit made almost no reference to Iran’s threat to shut down the Strait of Hormuz. Despite the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries having cut production and Venezuelan and Iranian exports being slashed, oil price futures have remained in the $ 60 to $ 70 barrel range and global stocks have remained high.

The sanctions have taken a toll of Iran’s economy. The IMF predicted in spring that the Iranian economy would shrink about 6 per cent.  But the costs are insufficient to make Iran change its nuclear policies or dismantle its regional network of Shia militia — the key demands of the US and Arab countries like Saudi Arabia. Iran’s economic problems are partly of its own making. Most of its oil wells are mature and in the second half of their lives. Its oil production is naturally depleting 8 to 11 per cent a year. Iran’s volatile regulatory environment and sanctions have meant few international investors have developed new fields. The country has also failed to build domestic refineries. As only about 40 refineries in the world are designed to handle Iranian crude, the country is overly susceptible to sanctions. Reportedly this is why Tehran, while agreeing to China investment in the South Pars Phase II field in return for 17.5 per cent of the production for nine years, has also demanded China increase its production in its existing fields in West Kharoun by a half million barrels or more.

July 15, 2019

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The United States is slipping gradually into election mode. The incumbent President Donald Trump has already declared his intention to run again. His only rival for the Republican nomination is ex-governor Bill Weld whose run is seen as a mark of protest rather than a genuine campaign. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, has over 20 candidates. In June, the Democrats squared off against each other in two televised debates. The polls so far indicate that five candidates have pulled ahead of the others -Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg in descending order of their support. The others are polling less than three per cent. 

These five have already outlined their initial views on foreign policy. The Democratic candidates cover the full ideological spectrum when it comes to how the US should interact with the wider world. Avowed “Democratic Socialist” Bernie Sanders projects his domestic leftwing populism on the world, sharing Trump’s aversion to overseas military involvement and wariness about free trade agreements. But he also talks about a global popular movement that would overthrow the existing economic order with its entrenched elites and multinational firms. He curiously sees authoritarianism as a consequence of global inequality. Warren also comes from the left but is more reformist than revolutionary. 

Biden, who has years of experience within government and the Senate, Harris, who sits on congressional homeland security and intelligence committees, and Buttigieg, a former naval intelligence officer, have more mainstream views and take a more traditional view of security. Buttigieg has invested an unusual amount in foreign policy and claims to have built a brain’s trust of over 100 advisors. 

The candidates broadly agree that the US should pull out of Afghanistan and generally limit its military actions overseas, support the Paris Agreement on climate change, support the nuclear deal with Iran, are extremely hostile to Russia and oppose Trump’s anti-immigrant stance. Most agree China is a problem but avoid taking as a strong a stance as the Republicans have. Buttigieg has so far been the most open in calling China’s “authoritarian capitalism” a threat. Biden initially said he didn’t see China as a concern and changed his view after strong criticism. There are sharp differences, however, over Israel with Sanders being particularly critical. His main foreign policy advisor Matt Duss has, in past, been accused of anti-semitism even though Sanders is ethnically Jewish.  Commentators have noted Trump’s isolationalist worldview already overlaps with that of many leftwing Democrats making foreign policy a poor campaign tool for them. However, with only five per cent of US voters citing foreign policy as their primary electoral concern, how to handle the world is likely to remain on the backburner. 

Trump spent much of his time carrying out a pet desire of holding a military-themed US Independence Day celebration. Military parades or fly-pasts are not a customary part of July 4th celebrations in the US. Trump’s insistence on bringing tanks and having warplanes fly overhead faced considerable criticism in the US. Unfortunately for the US president the event was affected by heavy rain.

July 15, 2019


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World in Review

About the Author

Pramit Pal Chaudhury

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta Aspen Centre

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes on political, security, and economic issues. He previously wrote for the Statesman and the Telegraph in Calcutta. He served on the National Security Advisory Board of the Indian government from 2011-2015. Among other affiliations, he is a member of the Asia Society Global Council, the Aspen Institute Italia, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and the Mont Pelerin Society. Pramit is also a senior associate of Rhodium Group, New York City, advisor to the Bower Group Asia in India, a member of the Council on Emerging Markets, Washington, DC, and a delegate for the Confederation of Indian Industry-Aspen Strategy Group Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue and the Ananta Aspen Strategic Dialogues with Japan, China and Israel. Born in 1964, he has visited over fifty countries on five continents. Mr. Pal Chaudhuri is a history graduate from Cornell University.